The scandal of the Cross remains the key to the interpretation
of the great mystery of suffering.

~ Pope John Paul II

Christ was born for this.
~ John Mason Neale

Ironically, I arrived late when I went to see Arrival last week, but who cares? I was on my own, treating myself to a birthday movie, and I wasn’t about to rush.

Seeing movies by myself was something I used to do all the time in my bachelor days – especially artsy films with sub-titles (an oddball acquired taste that few friends shared) – but now, with a family and a mortgage, sitting alone in a cinema feels totally self-indulgent. However, the kids were in school that day, Nancy, my wife, was at work, and I didn’t have any responsibilities until an end-of-semester faculty meeting later in the afternoon. I decided to go for it.

It was opening day for the new Star Wars cash cow, and I decided to combine my birthday extravagance with some parental reconnaissance. (My younger kids wanted to see it – I’ve learned my lesson.) Of course, the first screenings weren’t until nightfall, so I scanned the daytime alternatives and saw that Arrival fit in my schedule. The reviews, I knew, were popping over this heady close-encounters entry, and, since it was sci-fi (and alien sci-fi at that), I was pretty confident Nancy wouldn’t mind missing out on a potential date-night flick.

“Theater 10,” the theater lady said as I bought my ticket. “It’s already started.”

After my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found a seat down in front and watched Arrival’s protagonist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), care for her newborn daughter – what did I miss? There were scenes of happy home life and childhood, and then a jarring shift to adolescent illness, premature death, and a mother’s ripping grief – what’s going on?

I figured my tardiness deprived me of some key details in the opening moments of the film because I was lost. Who was the girl’s father? Why were mother and daughter so isolated? There was another shift as Professor Banks, a linguist, addressed a nearly empty classroom just as alien spacecraft were invading American airspace – as well as the airspace of various other nations around the globe. I was confused, and I anticipated that it would all come together as the story unfolded.

It didn’t – at least not for me. The same goes for Forrest Wickman of Slate who writes that the “primary emotion that Arrival evokes is puzzlement” totally. I’d heard that Arrival was innovative and smart, but apparently too smart for me. It layers events and encounters, inter-species and interpersonal interactions, like some kind of elastic time/space palimpsest. It was like reading Slaughterhouse Five, but without the benefit of knowing what Vonnegut was up to until the very end.

Plus, Vonnegut flops the reader around this way and that with a twinkle in his eye – he treats serious stuff, but he never takes himself too seriously. Not so with Arrival.

Instead, Dr. Banks and her sidekick, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), get all preachy about the superior non-linear language of the alien squid-beings, which itself reflects the creatures’ apparent non-linear experience of time and space. That experience bleeds over into the terrestrial realm of Arrival, which I imagine the filmmakers assumed would tidy up moviegoer bafflement by the closing credits.

Big assumption there.

The film’s amorphous time-space arrangement is also central to the story’s overall message: we have to accept the bad stuff life throws at us along with the good. “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you,” Louise asks Ian at one point, “would you do anything different?” Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Louise’s take on her own question is basically “no,” but it’s a stoic kind of no – like, “buck up, rise above the pain of it all, and focus on the joy.” As the closing credits rolled, I felt like I’d just sat through a two-hour intergalactic bumper sticker: “Life is hard, but so worth it!”

Yeah, I suppose so, but is that it? Is that what passes for profundity these day, for spirituality and deep meaning?

Disappointed, I left the theater and headed out to campus for the faculty meeting. I put on NPR, and Terry Gross was interviewing psychiatrist Anna Lembke about prescription opioid abuse – an issue of special interest to me as a nurse and nursing instructor. Lembke reviewed the alarming stats regarding the problem’s extent, and then she delved into reasons for the upsurge, singling out a radical change in attitude regarding pain and pain control over the past 100 years.

Formerly, Lembke said, doctors “believed that pain was salutary, meaning that it had some physiologic benefit to the individual, and certainly some spiritual benefit.” Not any more. Advances in medical technology and pharmaceuticals this past century have made better pain control much more likely – even routine. This, in turn, has led to widespread and rapid changes in expectations, and pain rapidly lost any perceived value or benefit – least of all spiritual benefit. “Doctors began to feel that pain was something they had to eliminate at all cost,” Lembke said, and so did healthcare facilities. Nurses, especially, hear about this topic constantly, and pain assessment is now considered a fifth vital sign – with the understanding that zero pain is the goal. “Pain management should be a priority of care for every patient,” states an American Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses position paper, “with freedom from pain as a basic human right.”

But should it? Dr. Lembke implied that our fixation on pain avoidance is at least partly responsible for the drug abuse epidemic, and even the American Medical Association is currently downplaying the “fifth vital sign” idea. Clinically speaking, pain is information, and, in the case of acute pain, it’s good information. It tells us that something is wrong – physiologically and/or emotionally – and that we need to do something about it. This is less the case with chronic pain, but even there, our bodily discomfort can serve a modulating function, and eliminating it altogether may require trade-offs (pharmaceutical or otherwise) that simply aren’t worth it.

Lembke’s testimony got me thinking about Arrival and its pain acceptance theme. If anything, the filmmakers didn’t go far enough with that idea, for they avoided the question of pain’s purpose altogether. This is especially important when we consider that the total elimination of physical pain can still be pretty elusive for some sufferers, despite all the medical advances. That being the case, is there nothing we can offer such unfortunate souls other than a grim-faced determination to somehow seek a measure of happiness amid their agonies? And what of other forms of pain – emotional, social, psychological, even spiritual? Should we, individually and collectively, be focused on being free from all forms of distress, no matter what it takes?

Consider, instead, the Church’s vision of pain and heartache. “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by…acceptance of suffering,” the Catechism teaches us. “Taking up one's cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance” (CCC 1435). Of course, it’s understood in this context that we’re talking about unavoidable suffering, and nowhere does the Church encourage us to seek out torment. Moreover, we’re obliged to alleviate the sufferings of others whenever we encounter them – hence the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy. Even so, when it comes to our own discomfort, the Church gently suggests that modern assumptions about pain management could use a philosophical makeover.

My first encounter with this idea came in a medical ethics course I took well before my nursing days. Along with other Church documents, we read the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, in which appears this startling observation: “One must not be surprised if some Christians prefer to moderate their use of painkillers, in order to accept voluntarily at least a part of their sufferings and thus associate themselves in a conscious way with the sufferings of Christ crucified.” The passage then references Matthew 27.34, where the crucified Christ refuses the wine mixed with gall offered him. Clearly, the CDF is suggesting that Jesus endured pain he might otherwise have foregone, and that we, his disciples, should at least consider following his example – at least when we reach the end of life.

To be sure, the CDF makes it plain that this kind of sacrificial suffering is a “heroic way of acting,” and we should never presume that others should or would choose it, least of all those who cannot choose for themselves. Nonetheless, we can extrapolate from the CDF’s suggestion that enduring pain instead of obliterating it does have intrinsic value – that it can help “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1.24). Besides, if Lembke is correct, flight from all pain and suffering can exact a precipitous cost – and that goes for both physical and psychic pain. Instead of expending all our energy and effort on evasion, there can be real benefit to channeling some of it into re-interpreting our imperfect, raw existence in light of the Cross and eternity.

Here’s where I came full circle to Arrival’s vision of non-linear time. Following my faculty meeting, I made my way to St. Matt’s for evening Mass, and I heard Isaiah make his opening pitch. “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor” – an image of deprivation mixed with elation. Following Isaiah, the Psalmist cried out, “Hear, O Lord, and have pity on me…. You changed my mourning into dancing; O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks.” Again, joy and pain, all mixed up together.

That’s what the liturgy brings home to us, day in and day out. We enter with our time-bound humanness, and we’re elevated to a timeless heavenly realm – a place where, in Isaiah’s words, the Lord invites us to “enlarge the space for your tent,” and to “spread out your tent cloths unsparingly.” No need for aliens to come teach us about an all-encompassing view of human experience; no need for advanced species to tell us that life is more than comfort and pain avoidance. Those who follow the crucified God know all this very well, and we are swept up into its reality every time we go to church.

It’s also embedded in the liturgical calendar, a sacramentally rooted re-presentation of redemptive history throughout the year, and nowhere is this more evident than right now, Christmas, our annual commemoration of the most important arrival in human history. There’s birthday joy – a Divine baby is born! – but there’s also a shadow of suffering and death because the babe is born to die. “When the archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin of Nazareth the birth of the Son,” writes Pope John Paul II, “it was certainly difficult to foresee that those words augured such a future; that the Reign of God in the world would come about at such a cost; that from that moment on the history of the salvation of all humanity would have to follow such a path.” The Holy Father continues:

Only from that moment? Or also from the very beginning? The event at Calvary is a historical fact. Nevertheless, it is not limited in time and space. It goes back into the past, to the beginning, and opens toward the future until the end of history. It encompasses all places and time and all of mankind.

What’s so startling is that the Church insists that this liturgical timelessness is not merely symbolic, but very concrete, very real, as is Christ’s recapitulation of our human experience in his divine headship. “There is no activity in the profane world which cannot be washed and brought pure into the holy of holies and offered up with ourselves,” writes David Fagerberg. “The sacramental liturgy continues in our very person.”

This Christmas season, let’s bring our sufferings along with our hearts to the Crib. There, we can be assured of a palliative transformation of all our human pain, and we’ll have the privilege of contributing to the salvation of the world.